Two years ago, I attended a Being Together day organised by the brilliant charity, Target Ovarian Cancer. As well as finding out about latest research and treatments and attending workshops for useful stuff like the Emotional Freedom “tapping” technique, it was the first opportunity I had had to talk to other women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, women like me.
Throughout the course of the day, I grew closer to three women - we just clicked - and at the end of the day, we vowed to keep in touch. Those women became firm friends and an essential support network, we call ourselves Onwards and Upwards, the mantra that we use to sign off our group messages. Via Facebook Messenger, we would keep in regular contact, checking in with each other following blood tests, scans, appointments and treatment, buoying each other through the bad news and celebrating the good. We even met up a few times a year, where treatment and fatigue allowed, to continue our conversations face to face and provide essential hugs for each other. We are all different ladies but with one huge life-changing fact in common, members of a club none of us asked to join, thrown together by fate.
Yesterday, I received the sad, but not unexpected, news that one of our little gang passed away...
She had been getting gradually more poorly for about 6 months, having been told that there were no further treatment options available to her. As she put it, her oncologist had “nothing left in his cupboard” for her. She was always very stoic in the face of very real adversity and despite her prognosis, continued to provide comfort and support to the rest of us, including congratulating me on good scan results in October. That was very difficult, wanting to share my good news with someone who I knew was having to deal with the very opposite.
The last time I saw her was at the end of September, when three of us had a low key coffee at her house. We brought each other up to date with our lives, both cancer and non-cancer related. We listened as she told us how she was only able to eat liquid food due to a bowel obstruction. The reality was, it could have been any of us who was telling the story and we all wished it was none of us having to go through the discomfort, pain and fear.
Soon after that, she was admitted to hospital for one complication after another, with endless hopes of returning to her home repeatedly dashed. She made it home last week for a couple of days before being admitted to a hospice. Even from her hospice bed, she remained optimistic that they would bring the latest complication under control so she could return home. We all wanted to believe this was the case but feared the worst.
It seems impossible to think that just over a year ago, the four of us had met up for a pre-Christmas meal, to celebrate the festive season together, toasting the fact that we were still here, despite another year of scans, tests, treatment, anxiety and fear.
How wrong and so very sad that a year on, almost to the day, we will be saying goodbye to our friend.
So as I lie awake in the middle of the night, I am reflecting on our short but very rich time together. We may only have known each other for two years, but we grew very close very quickly and our bond was deep.
The highlight of our time together was undoubtedly our outing to Ascot Ladies Day last year. Whenever we made plans, it was always with an unspoken caveat that one or more of us may not make it, depending on how we were feeling after treatment or following a temporary setback in our journey.
However on that June day in 2017, we all managed to muster up the energy, enthusiasm and excitement to put on dresses, heels and hats, and head for the Berkshire countryside for a day of picnic, champagne and a flutter on the horses. We soaked up the atmosphere, admired the outfits and hats, and chatted happily all day, feeling so happy and incredibly thankful to be there together. I think we even forgot the reason we knew each other, as just for a few hours, we were four normal girls without a care in the world.
This year, despite feeling less than well, she made it along to my 50th birthday celebration, with the rest of the group. I was so happy that we were once again all together to celebrate my milestone birthday, especially as I knew how much she was suffering. That meant the world to me...
In August, we were invited to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary and it was my turn to summon up the energy to attend. Despite feeling quite unwell, I wanted to be there for her as she had been for me. It was an emotional day and I felt so honoured to have been part of it.
Although I have lost people I have known longer and to whom I have been closer, this loss is the first of someone I have known with the same disease as me. Of course I am fully aware of the statistics and survival rates, but in a way, they’ve always been just numbers. Suddenly it has become very real, driving home the enormity of my own situation. As she said very recently, in a message to the group sent from her hospital bed “everyone’s cancer is different, please don’t worry that you will suffer in the same way as me”.
She was right, I don’t know how or when my story will end, so I need to just keep living life to the full as much as is possible within the confines of my treatment schedule. For me, that translates into enjoying food and drink, spending time with family and friends, and having new and varied experiences. And keeping the Onwards and Upwards club thriving in her memory.
Madeline Duncan, it was a privilege to have known you, my thoughts are with her husband Phillip and her children, Ellie and George, at this time.